PBD Fish Reports
The Cimarron Combines Spectacular Scenery with Outstanding Fishing
Paul B Downing
My royal coachman bounced on the surface of crystal clear water. A beadhead pheasanttail dug deep 2 feet behind it. The stream flowed over a rock lip and into deeper water, heading past overhanging willows. As I watched my flies I thought that this water was too shallow for there to be a trout in it. I could see the bottom clearly and there was nothing to see. But hope springs eternal for a fly fisher. In this case hope was rewarded. My coachman disappeared in a splashy strike. Keeping the fish out of the shoreline tangles, I guided a beautiful trout to my net. What a sight! Golden sides melted into a bright crimson belly. This was a Colorado River cutthroat, the native fish of the area. The beauty of this spectacular fish was matched by the country it is found in. Releasing this treasure, I took time to admire my surroundings.
Towering bluffs sculpted into massive drip castles crowd the stream from both sides. In the valley, a crystal clear stream full of trout bounces through gravel, around boulders and past undercut banks. It is said that trout live in beautiful places and I have fished many of them over the years. But this place…well, this place is special.
Just arriving in the Cimarron Valley in western Colorado is a treat. Driving up the dirt road (heading south) into the valley, you will spot the towering jagged peaks of the Big Blue Wilderness in the distance. As you near the peaks, ranch land gives way to National Forest. At the end of the road, nestled between the peaks, is Silver Jack Reservoir. The reservoir is filled by the three forks of the Cimarron River; East, Middle, and West. As you pass the reservoir you are engulfed in the beauty of the place. Sheer tan walls tower to the east and west. Ahead the jagged peaks take on a myriad of shapes, each changing as you move further into the valley. Aspen and pine trees add a green and gold base to the bluffs. This valley really deserves to be a National Park. But don’t come here just for the scenery, magnificent as it is. There are trout in those forks, lots of them.
Once past the reservoir, the road bends to the west. At the bend a smaller road, the East Fork access road, heads straight south toward the peaks. After turning to the west, the road goes over the East Fork, then the smaller Middle Fork. Passing the Middle Fork, the road bends north up a hill, then turns to the south in a big bend before heading west again. It then crosses the West Fork, before winding up a ridge and over the spectacular Owl Creek Pass on its way west to Ridgeway. Amazing vistas greet you at every turn.
Each branch has its own characteristics. The West Fork is fairly small and is dotted with pocket water. It can be easily accessed at the bridge. The flow is swift, bouncing off boulders into moderately deep pools. The banks are steep and tree lined, making fishing and wading a challenge but worth the effort. Wild rainbows of 8 to 12 inches abound in the pools. They take mostly beadhead droppers like a pheasanttail. I fish this fly below an attractor fly like a royal coachman for the added bonus of an occasional surface strike. These fish are seldom fished over so the exact fly usually is not important. Short casts and short rods are the ticket.
The Middle Fork is the smallest of the three. I have not fished most of it but there is a rough road following it upstream (south) to a trailhead that opens into a wider part of the middle valley. Hiking up from there, the Middle Fork is small and open with some deeper pools and spectacular views. There are some unexpectedly large rainbows in pools that do not look deep enough to hold anything. The Middle Fork could be my favorite fork to fish because of the scenery alone but it is not. The scenery and the fishing are surpassed by the East Fork.
The lower part of the East Fork can be accessed by the Middle Fork road or by the East Fork road. The stream is open and dotted with the occasional willow in the lower portion, passing over a wide river bed of loose water worn rocks. This part of the East Fork is subject to significant restructuring each spring during runoff. That nice hole that held several fish last year may be dry this year. Each year I have to relearn this area. It is not hard to figure out as the pools are evident. But be careful not to bypass subtle pools under small trees, willows, or deadfall branches. I have found some of the best fish in these less obvious places.
Approach each pool cautiously. One or two fish will be at the very bottom of the pool in very shallow water. You won’t see them, but they are there. Catching them requires a careful approach and a delicate cast. Even then, more often than not you will spook them. Work up into the pool slowly as trout will be in water so clear you can see the bottom distinctly yet they will be invisible. Your flies will be floating along in what looks like barren water when suddenly a fish will dart from nowhere to take your offering. Work all the water carefully as fish hold in what seem to be impossibly shallow places. Because of the clearness of the water these spots are deeper than they look. After some experience, you will figure out where to look for fish.
Driving up the East Fork road toward the trailhead, there are several places to park and access the East Fork. Open meadow and towering bluffs make this area a great place to camp. Glimpses of the stream to the west entice you. Access is easy. Rainbows and a few cutthroats in the 6 to 12 inch range can be caught in this stretch of the East Fork. The water is so tempting that I often have to stop here. Not a bad choice but you may want to consider going on to the trail head.
I have saved the best for last. From the East Fork trail head, hike upstream on the trail. As you head upstream, the trout population transforms from mostly wild rainbows to mostly native Colorado River cutthroat trout. These native cuts are as pretty as the scenery. Orange brown sides dotted with large black spots meld into a reddish belly. They have the typical red cuts under the throat.
Getting to the best of the cutthroat fishing requires a modest hike up the valley. As you follow the valley it will narrow and the stream will become steeper and faster. At every corner you will spot a wonderfully tempting pool or run. Pocket water dots the stretches between the pools
Passing these pools, I frequently find the temptation too great. The trout seem to call me as I hike past. I never seem to get as far up stream as I had planned. My advice, resist this temptation as long as you can, for the further upstream you travel, the better will be the fishing and the more and bigger will be the cutthroats.
Colorado River cutthroats are suckers for large attractor dry flies. A #16 royal coachman will usually do the trick whether or not there is a hatch. Add a beadhead dropper for extra action. I love the take of these fish. They rocket from cover to smash the fly with an abandon that puts a permanent smile on your face. Often, in the wild abandon of the take, they will miss. But not to worry, these fish have only a few short months to feed and grow. They are always feeding on anything they find. So, when they miss the fly, they frequently will come back on the next cast. Admire the beauty of these cuts as you release them. They are a treasure as great as the valley they live in.
July through September are the best months to visit the Cimarron Valley. In the summer the valley is fairly popular, more for hiking and sightseeing than for fishing. At that time it is best to hike a bit to get away from the people. There is always a quiet place to fish. My favorite time, however, is September. Most of the campers are gone. The aspens are in a multitude of vibrant colors. Sharpness fills the air. The fish are on their last feeding spree. Frequently there are no fishers on the stream. What could be better?
As the water cools, the trout start to move downstream toward the reservoir. At this time of year I find lots of fish in the area between the road and the inlet to the reservoir. This area is mostly loose rock which gets restructured each spring so it looks a bit barren. Take a short hike downstream where you will find pools and runs full of fish. In the fall the rainbows and cuts are actively feeding, taking both dries and droppers. The numbers of trout that take your fly will astonish you.
The informal camp areas scattered over the valley are dotted with visitors in summer but there is always room to camp along the stream branches. There are more formal yet still primitive camp grounds at several locations around and below the lake. A motel and restaurants are found in Ridgeway, an hour or more west over the pass on the slow scenic dirt road. Alternatively, head back north on Cimarron Road (#858) to Hwy 50 then west to Montrose where you will find a good choice of motels and restaurants.
The trout in the Cimarron aren’t big but they are beautiful, plentiful, and hungry. The scenery is world class. What more could a fly fisher ask for?
Access: Take the Cimarron Road number 858 (dirt but fine for cars) south from Hwy 50 to Silver Jack Reservoir or take it east from Hwy 550 north of Ridgway.
Size: Each fork is about 10 miles long although you could follow the east or middle forks up to their headwaters many miles into the Wilderness.
Weather: Usually pleasantly warm with cool mornings. Fall air is crisp but still pleasant. Rain is always a possibility.
Season: There is no closed season for trout. The best fishing is in August through September.